Collected perspectives on authenticity

The simple test of authenticity and honesty in marketing

Andy Sernovitz // Author & CEO, SocialMedia.org

Summary: Andy Sernovitz teaches word of mouth marketing and is a New York Times bestselling author. He is a rabid purist on the topic of marketing ethics and travels the country teaching companies how to stop being jerks to their customers.


"Am I trying to make our marketing look like something that isn't marketing?"

If you answer "yes," you're crossing into unethical territory.

Anything that makes an ad look like non-advertising is wrong. You're over the line if you're trying to disguise an ad as something else, especially something written by a consumer or reporter -- a Facebook post, a blog post, a tweet, a review, or a magazine article.

If you're doing this, you're trying to trick people. It's as simple as that.

There are dozens of variations on this theme.

Is it OK if we hire influencers to talk about our brand? Nope.

If you recruit influencers and compensated them, they aren't influencers. They are marketing agents of your company that you hired because people would be fooled into thinking that they are regular fans who love your product.

Is it OK if we pay someone (celebrity or otherwise) to tweet about our products? Nope.

The only purpose of these tweets is to disguise your marketing as a just another happy customer's tweet. It's the hiding that's bad -- choosing to borrow another identity instead of using your brand's Twitter account.

Is it OK to publish a web page that looks like a magazine article? Nope.

The fundamental purpose of this tactic is to trick people into reading an ad by dressing it up as editorial. Desperate publishers are eager to pimp their pages and reputations to marketers - but as the marketer, you're still the one tricking the readers.

Is it OK to buy ads on Twitter or Facebook? Yep.

With an official ad unit provided by the platform, everyone knows it's an ad. That's very different from paying an "influencer" to sneak your message into their posts.

Folks, this has been illegal for 99 years.

There's nothing new here. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed the Truth in Advertising rules that gave the FTC the authority to protect against "Unfair and Deceptive" practices.

It's always been illegal to solicit false endorsements. It's always been illegal to pretend your ads are the opinions of regular consumers.

Today, it's silly for a few marketers looking for a shortcut, or bloggers looking for a payday, to think that they are exempt from rules the rest of us have lived by for a century.

Just because it's social media, doesn't make it right.

Just because it's social media, doesn't make it right.

There are real consequences for messing this up.

Technically, by following the FTC's full and complete disclosure requirements, you've met the letter of the law.

But if the question is, "Are you being honest with your readers -- and are you being authentic with your brand?" The answer is clearly "no." Because, when you use some kind of technique to disguise your marketing message as something else, it'll work -- and you'll have nice metrics to show that people are engaging.

But, none of those metrics expose the fact that these people feel duped when they later realize what they thought was consumer opinion or editorial was actually your stealth marketing message.

So, what have you done? You've traded your brand's reputation for a one-shot campaign based on fooling people.

You're better than this.

Mature, established brands and mature, talented marketers should be saying "no" to this sort of deception -- because it's beneath you.

Have the confidence and self-assuredness to walk away from iffy tactics. You don't tape photocopied flyers to telephone poles. You don't run Craigslist ads. You don't drive a car around with a big megaphone shouting your message. Great brands don't do this sort low-rent stuff.

You may find a loophole that makes your lawyer happy. But you're failing three other tests: You're not honest. You're not authentic. And you're doing bad marketing.

Keep your standards high.

Earning the respect and recommendation of your customers and fans is the greatest thing a brand can do. It's that rare achievement where people are willing to put their good name behind your good work. They're bringing their friends to support your business because they love you and they love what you do.

So, when you're looking for the next great marketing campaign. Remember to keep it real and authentic. Think about what your best fans will be proud to show their friends.

Even better, think about this: If your mom calls you up and says, "Honey, I love what those people said about your company on Facebook" and you have to reply, "Mom, I paid those people to say that about me."

You really have to ask yourself, why are you running a campaign that would lie to your own mother?

You do great work. Being authentic and genuine is the best way to let the world know.

Authenticity: Collected Perspectives
Read more collected perspectives on authenticity

Download our Authenticity e-book to read more collected perspectives from the worlds of art, counterfeiting and social media on what it means to be authentic.

Click here to download »

Other perspectives

Julie Freeman
// Artist & TED Fellow

Julie Freeman

Authenticity – Relative, unmeasurable, and ever-changing

Julie Freeman is an artist, TED Senior Fellow, and amateur taxidermist. Her work incorporates technology and data to explore the relationship between science and nature.

Read here »

Tim Phillips
// Journalist, author, counterfeiting expert

Tim Phillips

Consumer demand for authentic vs. counterfeit goods

Tim Phillips is a freelance journalist who writes about business, technology, and economics. He is the author of several books, including Knockoff: The Deadly Trade in Counterfeit Goods, and Talk Normal: Stop the Business Speak, Jargon and Waffle

Read here »

Philip Mould
// Art dealer & forgery expert

Philip Mould

Art as authentic emotions – of the artist and the viewer

Philip Mould is an art dealer specializing in British art and Old Masters. He is the author of The Art Detective: Adventures of an Antiques Roadshow Appraiser, and a co-presenter on the BBC1 program Fake or Fortune?

Read here »

Andy Sernovitz
// Author & CEO, SocialMedia.org

Andy Sernovitz

The simple test of authenticity and honesty in marketing

Andy Sernovitz teaches word of mouth marketing and is a New York Times bestselling author. He is a rabid purist on the topic of marketing ethics and travels the country teaching companies how to stop being jerks to their customers.

Read here »

Learn more about authenticity